Thursday, December 13, 2007

Yupik Names

Yupik names have fascinated me since I first came to Bethel almost ten years ago. At first it was the village names, which I puzzled over in the airport while reading the flight information board. Mekoryuk, Kwigillingok, Kongiganak, Tuntutuliak, Nunapitchuk, Atmautluak, Kwethluk, Akiak, Chuathbaluk, and many more—such an odd, and yet musical jumble of syllables. I wondered if I would ever learn to pronounce them (much less spell them) correctly. But once I began seeing patients at the hospital, I learned that the village names are no more complicated than many of the family names.

In my mind, Yupik family names fall into several different categories. The first category is the one I call traditional. These are the surnames that sound like the Yupik language: Tunutmoak, Askoak, Pingayak, Ayuluk, Tatlelik, Tungwenuk, Kopanuk, Bayayok, Umugak, Nukusuk, Kaganuk, Tomaganuk, Kassaiuli, Egoak, Chiklak, Elachik, Kashatok, Ayunerak, Takumjenak and many more.

A guideline for pronouncing these names is that if they have only two syllables, like Chiklak, the accent will usually be on the first syllable: CHICK-lack. If the name has more than two syllables, the accent will usually be on the second syllable: ping-GUY-ak, buy-YAI-yuck, new-COO-suck, eee-LA-chick. Of course, just when you are getting the hang of it, there will be an exception like OS-ko-ak or CASH-a-tock. But you’ll be right more often than wrong if you stick to stressing the second syllable.

Yupik language, in general, is extremely difficult to speak. Most words have six or eight syllables, and some have many more than that. It is a very guttural language, with throat-clearing sounds that come from deep in the throat, and it incorporates “wetness” sounds that require what I think of as a juicy mouth. Teeth-sucking figures in there somewhere too. If Yupik is not your first language, you are unlikely ever to learn more than a few words of it, much less speak it fluently, no matter how linguistically gifted you are. It is a matter of some cultural pride that the language is so difficult to speak.

When it comes right down to pronunciation, a non-Yupik speaker is essentially never going to get it exactly right. No matter how much it may sound to me like I have repeated a word or a name precisely as a Yupik speaker said it to me, he or she will either correct me or just smile and say “close enough.”

The best example of this is a group of names that I think of as the al-RAY-as: Chimeralrea, Aloralrea, Aliralrea, Imgalrea, Ayagalrea, and Akerelrea. Our alphabet needs more than 26 letters to convey these sounds. No matter how much I practice, I have never found a member of these families who agrees that I said the name right.

A second category of family names is one that includes common English words as surnames: Landlord, Boyscout, Fancyboy, Coffee, Cook, Boots, Littlefish, Deacon, Crisco, Parent, Bell, Rose, Dock, King, Brink, Lake, to name a few. And then there is the animal subset: Beaver, Fox, Wolf; and the color subset: Black, Green, Brown, Gray, and White. I have always wondered how Yupik people came to have these names.

The only origin story I know of is for the name Fancyboy. It is a relatively new name. A few generations back, one of the Polty boys up on the Yukon River was very fond of wearing his dress-up regalia. He would often wear his fanciest clothes, even if there were no celebration. The missionaries at the school he attended began calling him Fancy Boy. The name stuck, and all his descendants are now named Fancyboy instead of Polty.

The third category of surnames is the one with a man’s first name as the family name. The list here is long: John, Peter, Pete, Thomas, Tom, Tommy, Carl, Nick, Paul, Oscar, Andrew, James, Jimmy, Ivan, Charles, Charley, Frederick, George, Moses, Noah, Phillip, Jasper, Owen, Joseph, Joe, David, Ned, Samuel, Sam, Simon, Herman, Henry, Frank, Gilbert, Ross…and the list goes on.

If you are a boy with one of these surnames, there will be someone somewhere in the Delta with your name flipped. There will be someone named Peter John and someone named John Peter—not necessarily in the same village, or knowing each other. Somewhere there is a Nick Andrew, and an Andrew Nick; a Pete Jimmy and a Jimmy Pete; a Sam Henry and a Henry Sam.

The convention that most amazes me, though, is that each of these families will have a child who is given the same first name as his last name. Somewhere out there in southwest Alaska there is a Joe Joe (and a Joseph Joe, and a Joe Joseph), a George George, a Carl Carl, a Sam Sam. Middle initials come prominently in to play on these, as there are often quite a few with the same name. I know of three guys named Nick Nick.

And if last names are interesting, first names are equally so. Many Yupik women have first names that most Americans think of as old; common in the previous centuries but not in vogue these days: Bertha, Agatha, Josephine, Gertrude, Helen, Fanny, Esmerelda, Cora, Agnes, Clotilda. In part, this is due to a naming convention long honored in Yupik culture. When an elder in a village dies, the next child born to that village is given the elder’s name. Thus, old names are perpetuated.

When the elder is male and the next child born is female, the elder’s name is often feminized: Wassilina for Wassilie, Vassalina for Vassal, Miltonia for Milton. One man who was named Fredrick has granddaughters named—of course—Fredricka, but also Fredella, Fredanna, and Fredtresia.

Some first names are ones that I’ve never heard of anywhere: Bolvania, Akeema, Bavilla (can be either male or female), Audrac, Unchallee, Novely, Xander, Akafia, Shontiana, Ayumin, Agrifina. More creative and “New Age” type names are creeping into the culture as well. There is a boy named Awesome and a girl named Heavenleah. And a family whose children’s names all start with J: Jaythan, Jadrea, Jaytlan, Jawna, Jayvin, Jadred, and Janaya. That mom has a tongue-twister of a list to run down when she is trying to nail the right kid with the right name!



Blogger jen said...

this is absolutely fascinating. the history and meaning and community behind the words.

Thursday, December 13, 2007 9:47:00 PM  
Blogger AK in AK said...


I'd love to see some ideas from your readers on the phonetic spelling of some of these names. As a fellow Bethel-ite, I thought "Ayagalria" was prounced "I-yah-gal-REE-ah" (as heard over the paging system at the hospital) for many years, until politely educated by Ms Ayagalria of the proper pronounciation: Eye-ah-GHAGH-rhee-ah, with a very gutteral tone - using the back of the tongue to pronounce ALL consonants,, including the "L."

Sunday, December 16, 2007 9:46:00 AM  
Anonymous alaska pete said...

Yeah, nice post. We have a Nick Andrew here in Kasigluk. Nunap has lots of Nicks, so they may have an Andrew Nick. The main surnames in Kasigluk include Andrew, Berlin, Brink, Nicholas, Demientieff, Tinker, and Twitchell. You also didn't go into "Yup'ik names" at all, which among other things are genderless. You can find a girl and a boy both named Ciuq'aq or Qerrat'aq or Uyang'aq, it doesn't matter. I don't think here they're very strict about naming the VERY NEXT baby after the passed elder, but maybe I'm wrong. It certainly is a general theme. But I think some weight goes into selecting someone the family really respected who recently passed on. So we'll have a whole rash of kids all about the same age with the same Kassaq or Yup'ik names.

For any Kassaqs who are really interested in learning Yup'ik, KUC has an on campus as well as phone-based Yup'ik language program. I've taken a few semesters, and its great. Taught by Oscar (Qetunaq) and Sophie (Aqum'aq - who happens to be from Kasigluk) Alexie. It's a lot of fun and they're very patient and gracious as students struggle to pick up the language.

It's hard to give a phonetic spelling of Ayagalria because we don't have all of those phonemes in the English language. eye-ah-gul-uh-ray would be my version, and you have to pronounce the R as a FRENCH R, as in the correct pronunciation of "rouge." Yeah, its in the back of the throat, below where you make a /k/. And the G in "gul" would be sort of like an english /g/ but the sound is sustained longer, the tongue is slightly more forward, and you sort of vibrate the saliva between your tongue and the soft palate while you say it. Got it? : - )

Monday, December 17, 2007 2:33:00 PM  
Blogger wcbpolish said...

As a teacher in Cevv'arneq (chefornak) I think that you have summarized the names pretty well. We have alot families with surnames: Jimmy, Panruk, Kilanak, Tunuchuk, Matthew, Mark, Wassilie.

We do have a Tom Tom. He makes some wonderful ivory earrings and sells them in our village store.

In our village we have alot of juniors- fathers have passed their names onto their sons, but usually NOT their firstborn.

Other odd first names I have encountered: Felix, Magdalene, Bosco, Arlene, etc

-Thomas Dean

Friday, April 11, 2008 9:14:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I knew somebody who I was doing genealogy for and he said his fathers claim to infamy was that he was an IRS Auditor. That the IRS expected everybody to have 2 names .. and if a person did not have one he gave them one. . . so my question is . . whether there really was an actual jump in new sir names in Alaska villages in between 1940 and 1947.

Friday, February 06, 2009 2:32:00 PM  
Blogger The Tundra PA said...

Anon 2/6/09--Interesting question. I have no idea. The missionaries did a lot of name-bestowing from the 1850s through the 1940s or so; it seems likely that the IRS did too.

Thanks for visiting, and for commenting.

Friday, February 06, 2009 6:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Miki Tuktu said...

Actually, some of these names that you said you have never heard before are actually Russian in origin and are probably old names passed down. Not surprising, considering that Alaska belonged to the russians only 50 years ago, and is still populated with people of russian descent, including many Yupik and Inuit peoples who still have family in Russia.

Monday, March 07, 2011 9:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Corey said...

I live in Togiak, and some of those names and rules are very familiar! We have several Nicks, Tommys, and even a Bavilla, which are all last names here. If you'd like to talk some more, my website is I love living out here, and I'm trying to learn the language, slowly but surely. The kids teach me new stuff every day.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011 12:46:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Taylor said...

@Miki Tuktu..... WHAaaat? Alaska became a State more than 50 years ago, 1959 to be exact was when the vote was, and statehood was shortly thereafter bestowed by Congress. Before 1959, it was a Territory of the United States since its purchase from Russia in 1867. That means it has been 145 years since the United States purchased the Alaska Territory, not 50 years. No - the names of the Y'upik and Inuit families are not Russian they are traditional names and can be found on both sides of the Bering Strait, but that does not make them Russian. Aleut names however do have some Russian surnames, and that is because the Russian-America Company Fur Traders would intermarry with the indigenous peoples and their names, like Kvasnikov as an example, continue down today. Other Euro names or Euro applied names also exist, alongside the traditional Aleut (or other coastal peoples, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Haida) names. As a child there were still one or two Russian 'sect' villages where the inhabitants claimed Russian lineage, but for the most part most of the "Russian" Coastal villages only have the old Russian Orthodox Churches still standing and the descendants of the marriages mentioned above as proof of the former Russian influence.

Many regards to those of my friends and family still in Ninilchik

Wednesday, February 08, 2012 11:48:00 AM  
Anonymous idssinfo said...

Thanks for your post, quite worthwhile material.

Monday, March 26, 2012 3:25:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The last name Landlord came to Mountain Village because of an old man named Chekoraq. He was the chief of Mountain Village long time ago. People came to him to ask where was a good place to build houses, smokehouses, etc.

Thursday, September 20, 2012 3:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

2Tim Taylor
Miki Tuktu, I suppose, was talking about first names, not family names.
Akeema, Akafia, Agrifina definitely sound Russian: Agafia, Argippina/Agrifina (both female) and Akim (male) were regular Russian names at about the same time as Fanny and Clotilda in the English speaking world.

Thursday, October 04, 2012 8:41:00 AM  
Blogger Sam said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Friday, April 26, 2013 11:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad to have stumbled upon your blog. I used to work in customer service that affiliated with a lot of Alaska Natives from all over Alaska so it made me laugh that I have heard a lot of these names and have run into some people with the same first and last names, as well the first name for sir names. Anyways, thank you for sharing! It's enlightening and cool to learn new things about the people around you. Have a good one!

Tuesday, May 07, 2013 11:41:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agrifina is Russian name - more exactly derivative either from Agrippina or Agrafena

Saturday, June 29, 2013 7:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was named after my dad's mom. He thought it was a Russian name.. and he was partly right. I asked every Russian if my name was a Russian name. All said they didn't recognize it until I met a Russian lady who went to a University south of Moscow. She recognized my name as a Siberian derivative of the Russian name Masha... Massa

Sunday, January 18, 2015 1:15:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are Russian surnames like Kameroff, Kamkoff, Ivanoff, Odinzoff, Stephanoff. My dad explained some people got their surnames from the missionaries and Catholic priests that proselytized the areas. There were also European gold seekers that intermarried.. You see Scandinavian names such as Peterson, Johnson, Alstrom. French such as Lamont and Laroux and German... Westdahl.. you know they're inter-racial because they look mixed. I have friends who are German / Native mix - Walters.. and also have relatives that are Lituanian / Native mixed - Stevens. Lots of unwritten history.

Sunday, January 18, 2015 1:57:00 AM  
Blogger De said...

Hello Alaska Pete!
I was wondering if you knew meanings of names given to people including kassaqs. "A man who takes steam baths". Do you know of the spelling maybe or know a man?

Monday, January 16, 2017 1:59:00 PM  

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